Stop Stalling Over Pulling Out Troops

President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy managed this week to iron out their disagreements over the cease-fire they signed Aug. 12 to halt the conflict between Russia and Georgia. They agreed that Moscow and Tbilisi would withdraw their troops to the positions they occupied prior to the outbreak of South Ossetia hostilities on Aug. 8.

The original, six-point plan also stipulated the withdrawals but was apparently open to various interpretations. Moscow insisted that it allowed Russian troops to remain several kilometers inside Georgia proper, at key locations like the Black Sea port of Poti. In what it presented as part of the peacemaking deal, the Russian military blew up Georgian naval vessels at Poti and roamed the Georgian countryside.

Hopefully the provisions of the newly elaborated version of the plan signed by Medvedev and Sarkozy and by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hours later in Tbilisi are spelled out clearly enough to prevent further creative interpretations by either Russia or Georgia.

Sarkozy should be commended for both his initiative and patience in coming to Moscow twice to try to help ensure an end to armed hostilities. The responsibility now lies with Moscow and Tbilisi to ensure that his efforts pay off.

Further stalling on the Russian side would undercut its assertion that its prime motivation has been the defense of civilians, many of them Russian citizens, from an ill-conceived attempt by Saakashvili to force South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold. Failing to withdraw would only provide justification for charges by Tbilisi that Russia is trying to bring Georgia back into what it insists is its zone of influence, something that is unlikely to happen regardless of how long the troops remain.

The longer the troops stay inside Georgia, however, the greater the damage to Russia's reputation in the eyes of the international community, and not just observers in the West. Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the move has so far received the full backing of just one country, Nicaragua. A diminished international image will only hurt Moscow's chances of convincing other capitals to follow suit.

Russia has already taken sufficient steps to protect South Ossetians and Abkhaz from the threat of Georgian military force, and the plan's provisions, which allow it to keep troops in the two republics and commit Tbilisi to refrain from any hostilities toward them, further bolster the security guarantee.

If Russia's main goals in the conflict have been as its leaders claimed, they should now be satisfied.

If Moscow's real goal is, however, to try to bring Georgia back within its orbit, this kind of brinkmanship is more likely to lead to a new Cold War for which it will have neither the resources nor the allies it enjoyed in its days as the Soviet capital.